Saturday, April 29, 2017

Radha Mitchell’s Prime Suspect Wicker Man, or Thoughts on Sacrifice

We’ve spoken about Australian actor Radha Mitchell before, with appearances in SilentHill (2006) and The Darkness (2014), and despite enjoying mainstream success in movies like Pitch Black (2000), Man on Fire (2003) and Finding Neverland (2004) she is continually drawn back to the horror/sci-fi genre with films including Surrogates (2009), Rogue (2007) and The Crazies (2010).  Which brings us to Sacrifice (2016), a Scottish conspiracy thriller with some horror edges; equal parts The Wicker Man(1973) and, well, ever British procedural from Prime Suspect to Broadchurch.
Radha Mitchell is Dr. Tora Hamilton, an OB/GYN who, along with her Scottish husband, moves to a small village in the Shetland Islands and finds the mummified body of a woman with runes carved in her skin and her heart ripped out.  Preserved by the peat moss, the authorities maintain that the body is at least a thousand years old, while Radha, very convincing as doctor, believes otherwise.  The premise is all the more compelling as it’s based on historical fact, Northern Europe has been sacrificing people (or executing criminals, depending on your historian) and throwing them in their local bogs since the bronze age.
Tora investigates, and because this is a movie there’s a conspiracy, a small town with lots of secrets, missing women, missing babies and some scary local legends.  Watch out for Ian McElhinney, Barristan Selmy from that show about dragons, as DI McKie and David Robb, Germanicus from I, Claudius (1976) and Dr. Clarkson on Downton Abbey as Richard, Tora’s father in-law.




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Friday, April 28, 2017

Sex and Death in Venice (and everything in between), or Thoughts on The Comfort of Strangers

A stylish, erotic thriller starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Walken from the director of Cat People (1982) and written by Harold Pinter?  That’s really the only sentence you need to read before The Comfort of Strangers (1990), a darkly subversive travelogue about what can happen when you meet the locals on vacation.
Rupert Everett and Natasha Richardson are Colin and Mary, a nice English couple rekindling their failing relationship in Venice when they stumble into a kinky Merchant-Ivory production after meeting Robert and Caroline, a decadent couple living in a gorgeous Venetian palazzo.  Robert of course is played by the inimitable Christopher Walken, with a confusing Italian/American/Weirdo European accent while his wife is portrayed by the equally stellar Helen Mirren.
The Harold Pinter screenplay and its circular, indirect and word-rich dialogue focuses more on creating a mood and tone than exposition, while director Paul Schraeder is there to provide the twisted sexuality amidst the perfectly framed shots of Venetian alleys and obscure bars and cafes, far away from the tourist traps.  The movie is as much a portrait of Venezia in the 90’s as it is a showcase for Christopher Walken’s charming sadist in a white linen suit.
With a wardrobe by Giorgio Armani, speaking of white linen suits, and a dreamlike soundtrack from David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badlamenti of Twin Peaks (1990), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001).





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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Rum, Brandy and Pineapple Juice With a Twist of Lime, or Thoughts on Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie

A traditional gothic like Wuthering Heights (but with zombies) from director Jacques Tournier, and producer Val Lewton, I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is a horror movie or psychological thriller with that familiar undercurrent of unresolved sexual tension twisting into something darker that’s present in their other two films; Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943).  Francis Dee stars as Betsy Connell, a nice Canadian nurse who takes a post in the West Indies caring for the invalid wife of brooding plantation owner Paul Holland and his equally handsome younger stepbrother Rand.  Betsy soon learns that the somnambulant Mrs. Rand has been zombified, but she’s not the bitey kind, (you can thank George A. Romero for adding the cannibalism aspect), she’s a traditional Caribbean voodoo zombie, more like a hypnotized sleepwalker who can never wake up.  There’s also the implication that the plantation is using zombies as slave labor, that is, if you believe they’re actually zombies.
Like all of a Val Lewton’s movies, the supernatural elements are ambiguous; so much is left up to the viewer.  The story is presented, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusion in an interesting collaboration between the filmmakers and the audience.  Expect the stylish composition and atmospheric shadows, amidst Calypso interludes and jungle drums.  There’s also a dated colonial racism, not overtly or distractingly but it’s inherent in the setting and the genre. 
With a taut screenplay by Curt Siodmark of The Wolf Man (1941), the movie clocks in at a very economical 68 minutes.





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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Searching For a Pre-Heisenberg Ripper, or Thoughts on The Leopard Man

Let’s get one thing straight; there’s nothing supernatural about The Leopard Man (1943), there are no were-leopards in this stylish film noir by director Jacques Tournier, producer Val Lewton, the same team who made the original Cat People (1942), which, no spoilers, was all about were-cats.   The Leopard Man follows the rivalry between two nightclub performers in 1940's New Mexico, Clo-Clo the flamenco dancer and Kiki the torch singer.  A black panther escapes after a botched publicity stunt and coincidentally, young women start getting slashed to death.  What’s Kiki and her manager boyfriend Jerry to do, but look for the killer?
With snappy dialogue and gorgeous black and white composition, Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier created their signature blend of atmospheric oppression and subterranean (this is 1942, people) dark, dangerous sexuality.  The violence is implied, but the sense of terror is effectively conveyed through performance, shadows and especially sound.  Clo-Clo’s nervous castanet playing as she walks down a late night street builds tension and dread without actually showing anything, proving once again that with proper direction and good script, less is truly more.
Watch out for the same black leopard from Cat People (1942), I suppose that qualifies as a cameo.  His name was “Dynamite”, and because the Internet exists, he has his own IMDb page.






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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zombies of the Caribbean, or Thoughts on Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2

Zombi 2 (1979), is technically (at least in director Lucio Fulci’s mind) a sequel to George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1978) and was the director’s most ambitious zombie movie with the biggest budget and the clearest plot.  To be fair, I’ve only watched dubbed versions of his other films and may have missed critical, mistranslated plot elements, but even with its clumsy pseudo-American dialogue, Zombi 2 remains a confusing 80’s classic that pushed the boundaries of gore and helped bring about the modern horror movie.
The movie opens with an abandoned sailboat drifting into New York, with a now-sentimental view of the Twin Towers and the Manhattan skyline.  Harbor police investigate and hey, there’s a zombie aboard!  Said zombie gets shot and falls overboard, and the sailboat owner’s daughter teams up with a reporter to search for her missing father.  That search leads to a Caribbean island where a mad doctor has been investigating/experimenting on the zombie-fied locals.  The movie (I know, lost in translation) isn’t particularly clear on whether the doctor actually created these zombies, but the setting implies voodoo, and if movies and comic books have taught us one thing, it’s that voodoo is all about the traditional, supernatural zombie.
Zombi 2 is a giallo gore-fest, but the eyeball splinter scene stands out as almost Hitchcock-esque.  After watching Olga Karlatos as Paola, the doctor’s wife take a long shower, she’s attacked by a zombie who breaks through the door and manages to stab her in the eye before, presumably, eating her.  It’s a highlight of the film and featured in most of the VHS covers.  It’s interesting because the director punishes the audience for the voyeurism he created.  We watch movies, in particular this movie, with our eyes, and like Buinel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929, it was a sheep’s eye), we use our eyes to watch someone being horribly blinded.  It’s delightfully subversive, and stays with you for days,
However Ramón Bravo, Olympic swimmer, underwater photographer and shark wrangler as the uncredited underwater zombie is the real star of the movie, which features the first and to my knowledge, only zombie vs. shark scene shot underwater, with a real shark.  The scene has real tension as Ramón Bravo wrestles with the shark, rides him like he’s a friendly dolphin at a resort and even lets the shark bite off a fake arm.  I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that this scene also includes Auretta Gay, in scuba gear and g-string that would be considered skimpy even by modern standards, who first swims away from the shark and into the arms of the underwater zombie.  Now that’s a vacation story.






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Monday, April 24, 2017

Buried Alive in the 80’s, or Thoughts on Lucio Fulci’s City of The Living Dead

Catriona MacColl, who we could easily describe as director Lucio Fulci’s Jamie LeeCurtis, is indeed buried alive after having a vision of a suicidal priest in a cemetery that opens the Gates of Hell during a séance (hang on, the whole movie is this convoluted) in City of The Living Dead (Paura nella città dei morti, 1980).  These are the same Gates of Hell mentioned a year later in The Beyond (E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà ,1981), also starring Catriona MacColl.  Hell has a lot of gates, 7 according to Lucio Fulci and when you open one of those gates the dead rise and presto, instant zombie movie.
With a chaotic, confusing plot, but plenty of living dead biting people, Lucio Fulci’s directing style always seemed to focus more towards the surreal and repulsive rather than abject terror.  The movie features a bounty of in-camera, practical effects that range from the super-gross to the downright magical, including the vomiting entrails scene, the horizontal drill press to the head, the flying maggot storm and the crying tears of blood (it’s one shot, no editing, and it’s simply sublime).
Catriona MacColl would go on to star in Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery (1981), completing his Gates of Hell Trilogy.  But Lucio Fulci specialized in demonic, supernatural zombies, as a Catholic director from the one of the world’s most Catholic-y countries. 
Supernatural zombies have fallen out of vogue; starting in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead the modern zombie has consistently had a science fiction or a bio-horror origin.  It’s always a virus, genetic modification, or radiation from a satellite.  You would think director Ed Wood would actually get more credit for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which as you know concerned the reanimation of the recently departed through the stimulation of the pineal gland to facilitate an alien invasion.   There have been exceptions, the Spanish Rec (2007) series had satanic zombies, though it's interesting to note that the US remake (of course there was a remake, do you think we have time to watch subtitles) Quarantine (2008) threw out the religious angle and made it an old-fashioned found footage bio-horror.  In America there's this disturbing trend to demonize science and legitimize religion, but that's a subject for a different blog, and a different blogger.




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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Russian X-Men to the Rescue, or Thoughts on Защитники, Zaschitniki

While American superhero movies have reached an inevitable tipping point, it doesn’t mean I’m not curious at what the rest of the world is up to, and after the trailer went viral last year (I sure wish my ASMR movie review channel would go viral) I was eager to see Guardians (Защитники, Zaschitniki, 2017); a Russian green-screen X-Men/Iron Man/Avengers mashup that is just as ridiculous and exciting as any Marvel or DC offering, with the added novelty of completely new characters speaking in Russian.  I found it interesting how Russia, a country that the US set up as the polar opposite to West could create their own superhero mythos that both reflects the West while adding their unique Slavic spin to the genre.
The Guardians are a group of former Cold War super soldier experiments, much like Captain America, except, you know, Russian, living in relative obscurity until they are recruited by the icy Major Larina, the commander of Operation Patriot.  They include the Armenian Ler, who’s kinda like Magneto, but with rocks, the Siberian Ursus or the awesome Russian bear hulk with the Gatling gun, the Kazakhstani Kahn, a Kung-Fu Winter Soldier with some curvy Soviet bat’leths and the Muscovite Xenia, an invisible Lara Croft, who can also turn herself into water.  They have to fight their creator, Professor Kuratov, who has somehow morphed into a cyborg bodybuilder who can control electronics.
That’s about all the plot you get; Moscow gets blown up, the Guardians save the day, and they leave room for a sequel.  There’s a certain emotional sensitivity that may seem maudlin to American viewers, but it’s an essential aspect of the Russian character.  It’s almost as if they made an entire movie based on Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV (1985) as Ivan Drago, and to my admittedly limited knowledge of Russian Cinema, this is the first movie where Russia has actually embraced that Cold War stereotype of the Soviet superman.



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Friday, April 21, 2017

A Haunted VHS Tape for Generation iPhone, or I Watched Rings, So You Don’t Have To


Is it possible to make a movie about a haunted/cursed video less scary while living in a world where everyone has 24-hour, unlimited access to video?  The question was not deliberately posed by the filmmakers of Rings (2017), the latest reboot with attractive teens and non-compelling digital effects that brings nothing new, innovative or most important, frightening to the franchise.
Samira is back, though now she’s a digital character like Gollum or Jar Jar, and haunting the computer screens of college kids after their professor finds a swap meet VCR that just happens to have a cursed videotape stuck inside it.  As always, once you watch the video, your life slowly integrates with the dream/nightmare world, or Samira begins to latch into your world, either way you’re dead in a week unless you pass on the curse, by getting some other poor sap to watch the video.
With Johnny Galecki from Rosanne still getting work as the aforementioned college professor.  The original Ring (2002) was also PG-13 but starred an adult, single mom Naomi Watts and was directed by Gore Verbinski.  It’s difficult to make an effective PG-13 horror movie without quality performances and nuanced directing; you can’t go nuts on the blood and guts (see what I did there, I’m a rapper) when you’re chasing that fickle teen dollar.
The Ring (2002) was also a remake when it arrived on these shores of the Japanese hit Ringu (リング, 1998), so I suppose that makes Rings a reboot of a remake?  It Follows (2014) had a far better and updated premise that seems  at least in part, inspired by The Ring and what do you know, was still an original film.  Finally, the most compelling and horrifying aspect of the series is how the TV screen becomes a window for Samira to crawl out of, but how is she supposed to come out of your phone?  The worst she could do is tickle your ear or poke an eyeball.






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Thursday, April 20, 2017

More Like Green Screen on Elm Street, or Thoughts on the Nightmare on Elm Street Remake




Side Note: the full title of this movie and the 1984 original is “A” Nightmare on Elm Street, not “The Nightmare” or “Nightmare”, and to the filmmaker’s credit they kept the “A” in the 2010 remake featuring a new Freddy, a prettier cast and more digital effects than the entire budget of the original film ($1.8 million in 1984 dollars).  Much like the 2007 Halloween reboot, the 2010 Nightmare also featured a music video director making his big screen debut with Samuel Bayer, who directed Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991) and The Cranberries’ Zombie (1994).
The premise and names remain the same; Jackie Earle Haley plays the new Freddie, alongside Clancy Brown, the Kurgen from Highlander (1986, there can be Only One) taking over John Saxon’s role (though he’s a high school principal now) and a bunch of the oldest looking photogenic teens in Hollywood including Katie Cassidy, Laurel Lance from Arrow as Kris and Rooney Mara, Kate’s sister and also the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) as Nancy Holbrook.  Connie Britton from American Horror Story: Murder House (2011) plays Nancy’s single mom, Gwen, along with Thomas Dekker from Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles as another one of those teens who could easily buy beer without getting carded.
The idea that you could die in real life if you died in your dreams has always been frightening; while a movie based on the parents where parents are actually responsible for their teenage kids’ misery has a certain irony to it.  The new Freddie makeup looks more like actual burn victim, and Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddie has far less personality than Robert Englund’s interpretation.  This may have been a directorial decision to distance themselves from the 80’s, but the character loses his sense of fun without gaining any discernible sense of menace or terror. 

  


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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Spaghetti Zombie Jambalaya, or Thoughts on Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond


If Dario Argento is the Italian Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone is the Italian Howard Hawks, then Lucio Fulci has to be the Italian George A. Romero, with The Beyond (1981), or E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà serving as a classic example of his surreal mix of gore, torture and beautiful women in jeopardy.  British actor Catriona MacCall from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) stars as Liza Merril, former Manhattan model who inherits a run-down New Orleans hotel that just happens to be built over one of the Seven Doorways to Hell.  It doesn’t take long before she finds the Lovecraftian Book of Eibon (cited in The Haunter of the Dark, The Dreams of the Witch House, The Horror in the Museum and The Shadow Out of Time, in case you’re interested, and I know you are) behind one of the sealed rooms and the movie goes to hell in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
A spaghetti zombie movie, I wouldn’t call it a giallo in because director Lucio Fulci actually filmed in Louisiana; like Sergio Leone, this is his vision of the US.  There are numerous scenes set in the French Quarter and  Metrarie Cemetary, in between all the face eating spiders, disturbingly attractive blind ladies who may be ghosts and the zombies in the basement.  His most famous movie is Zombi 2 (1979), which featured the world’s first and to my knowledge only underwater zombie vs. shark scene.






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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Still Coming For Barbara, or Thoughts on The Night of the Living Dead Remake

Zombie makeup genius and frequent George A. Romero collaborator Tom Savini made his big screen directorial debut with the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake.  With an updated script by the original authors George A. Romero and John Russo that hits the same notes, though Barbara is less hysterical and the power struggle no longer a racial issue because hey, it’s 1990, Night of the Living Dead featured Patricia Tallman, Lyta Alexander from Babylon 5 as Barbara and a very young Tony Todd taking over the role of Ben. 
You know what happens next, and Tom Savini directs this movie like a color version of the original but with updated, in-camera, analog special effects, which means that you get to see a lot of zombie heads beings squished in real time.  The ending is also similar to the original, but there’s a twist, and it’s a good one.
With Tom Towles, who would go on to portray George Rydell in House of a 1000 Corpses (2003) and The Devil’s Rejects (2005) as Harry Cooper, the guy in the basement (still wearing a tuxedo) and coincidentally, co-star Bill Moseley from both of those Rob Zombie movies as Johnny, Barbara’s brother (still rockin’ the leather driving gloves).
Absolutely savaged by the critics (you might even say the movie was torn apart and eaten alive), Roger Ebert famously gave it one star, though it now has a current Rotten Tomatoes rating of 68%.  It’s similar in theme and tone to Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot, color photocopy remake of Psycho (1990), and like that movie, fans of the original will appreciate the effort.  Plus, who doesn’t like Tony Todd?


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